Lie, Lady, Lie!

“Lay, Lady, Lay” is one of my favourite songs from the olden days, but it uses terrible grammar.  I can accept the bad grammar because it comes under the “poetic license” umbrella, but if the lyrics were part of a novel, they would make me shudder.

I once  came across a sentence in a novel that said, “Ruth is laying on the bed.” Ruth is a woman, not a chicken, so I wondered what she was laying. In another chapter, “George laid on the bed.” For sure, George is not a chicken, but the writer doesn’t tell us what he laid on the bed.

Now if the author had said “Ruth is laying out her clothes on the bed,” or “George laid his suitcase on the bed,” that would make more sense. Unfortunately, as I read on, I realized that the author meant to say, “Ruth is lying on the bed,” and “George lay on the bed.”

The misuse of the verbs “to lie” and “to lay” is one of the most common errors made by authors. A large percentage of books I have read contain this error. It could be avoided so easily, but when an author misuses these verbs, it can take the pleasure out of reading an otherwise well-written novel.

Why does the verb “to lie” give writers so much trouble? Why didn’t the authors have their work copy-edited before rushing out to publish it?

To be fair to the authors, I’ve noticed that in many cases, the novels were published by traditional publishing houses who employ their own copy-editors. Surely, they should have caught these mistakes. However, the errors could have been avoided if the writers had a better grasp on their use of English grammar and had not made these mistakes in the first place.

In my copy-editing work I often come across the misuse of the verbs “to lie” and “to lay,” so I know it’s a widespread problem. I also know that authors could avoid it with a little effort on their part.

My advice to authors is to find a chart online or in a grammar book, and copy it. Then pin it on your bulletin board or tape it to your desk. The conjugation of the verb “to lie” can be found easily enough on the Internet. One of many sites is http://conjugator.reverso.net/conjugation-english-verb-lie.html. On this page you can type any verb into the space at the top and click on “conjugate” and the whole page will be filled with the cases of the verb in question.

For a quick version of how “lie” and “lay” are used with the pronoun “I,” here are some examples:

To Lie (down)

I lie (present)

I lay (preterite)

I have lain (present perfect)

I am lying (present continuous)

To Lay (to set an object down)

I lay (present)

I laid (preterite)

I have laid (present perfect)

I am laying (present continuous)

To Lie (tell an untruth)

I lie (present)

I lied (preterite)

I have lied (present perfect)

I am lying (present continuous)

There is no need for a writer to misuse the verbs “to lie” and “to lay.” If you have trouble with these verbs, referring to your chart will save you from making mistakes that undermine your writing abilities.

I am not lying when I tell you that once you have studied these verbs and have a reference chart pinned up, you won’t have to lay down your pen and give up writing so you can “Lie, Lady, Lie,” lie across your big brass bed to rest your aching, verb-befuddled head.

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11 thoughts on “Lie, Lady, Lie!

  1. I never get this word correct when I write. My critique group sometimes caught it for me, sometimes they didn’t. What is the past-tense? And that reminds me, I get passed and past messed up too. I know ‘passed’ is a verb, but I still get them wrong.

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